Along the Finke
We were married the last Saturday in November – 27 November 2004 -- and spent two days driving to Longreach, some of it on the Capricorn Highway, spending the night in a motel in Charleville. In Longreach, we went through the Stockman's Hall of Fame and drank at a pub and had dinner ... and made love. After breakfast, we got tucker for lunch, climbed back into the rent-a-Rover and headed for Mount Isa. We were hot and sticky and tired when we got to Mount Isa, but we found the Verona Hotel right away and had a happy time showering together. Then we got dressed and walked down to the Leichardt River, flowing north to Burketown.
"I love you," said Weena.
"Thy love is better than high birth to me, " I responded.
"Ooh. I love it when you quote Shakespeare!"
I kissed her. "And we're at the Verona! Let's find a place to eat."
"Strong drink giveth the desire, but taketh away the ability, " I responded.
"After these weeks, I find it unlikely that you'll lose ability."
"You are a saucy wench!"
When we got back to the Verona, I hauled out my map and realized two things: it was a long, hot drive to Perth and I really didn't think I wanted to do it. But I didn't really want to go north to Darwin, either. And I didn't want to backtrack.
"What do you really want to do?" And I told Weena what I thought.
"Could we get to the Alice?"
"I think so. We're pushing the rainy season, but we'll be going south, away from the Timor Sea. We could get to the Barkly Homestead in one day, if we leave early. And from there to Wauchope and then to the Alice. Taking it a bit easier, we could stop in Tennant, then Wauchope, then Alice."
"Could we dump the rent-a-Rover in the Alice and fly to Perth?"
"Let's do it. You ask the barman whether he thinks we can make the Homestead in one big drive."
The barman opined that it was under 500 k and that we could do it eight hours. One of the patrons said we'd perish trying to do that. Another responded that he'd perish if he went that far from a pub. I left them to their discussion and asked the woman at the desk whether I could phone the Homestead about a booking. She offered to do it for me, and I told her to take the best that was available. Then I went to report to Weena.
We were downstairs before seven and I checked our jerry cans for petrol and for coolant. I went to the Verona's kitchen and asked about cutting some brownie and meat for lunch, which they were happy to do. Then we had coffee and chops and fried bread, paid the bill, and started out. Just as we were getting on highway 66, I pulled into a station, filled the car's radiator with straight coolant, topped off the petrol tank and the tin, bought some bottled water, and we were on our way.
Folks used to joke about the road from Mt. Isa to Camooweal, built by the Yanks during the war, and called "Tojo's Highway." It was the worst road in Australia. But it was resurfaced a few years ago, and hasn't broken up (much) yet. So we just zipped along with only some jouncing. It was under two hours till we saw a warning sign that the caves were flooded, so there was no attraction to cause us to stop at all as we passed from Queensland into the Northern Territory. About an hour later, we did stop. I made a billie of tea and we had a snack. I was confident about the petrol, but I topped off the radiator. It was already 30 [86 F] and it might get a lot warmer. Evaporation can kill. December in the tropics!
It was about the same distance again to Barkly Homestead as what we'd covered in our first three hours. But as we got along the road began to undulate and I slowed.
"Great job of roadlaying!" Weena remarked.
"Must have been done by the serpent in Dreamtime," I responded.
Soon after the beginning of the dreaming, after the rocks and the waters were in their places, but there were no people to move things about, the great serpent lay down in the grassland. The serpent was going to sleep and dream some more. But, as it still is with serpents, the skin was getting dry and began to itch. And so the serpent began to roll and to rub and to beat coil after coil against the grass. And after a time and a time, the skin split and the serpent was free of that itch and the old skin just blew away when the rain came. But the places where the great serpent rolled and rubbed kept their marks. And the road keeps those marks, too.
Weena looked at me. "Is that Warlbiri?"
"No, it's Gordy."
"I just made it up. I've been hearing those stories for nearly 30 years. Didn't it sound like a real one?"
"You nasty bastard!"
"Nonsense, you saw my parents only a few days ago."
"But you know, it's a true story. You may think you made it up, but it was brought to you on the wind as we drove. Baiame brought it, as he walked on the earth he made, among the plants and animals, and created man and woman to rule over them. He fashioned them from the dust of the ridges. Look around. There's no other man nor woman, no 'roos, no cattle. We are the man and the woman."
"Yes." I got serious. "The land does that to us. We're not natives, but we're part of it, you and I. Wait till we get to the Alice. We'll take a day and go to Uluru. We'll see where Tatji's remains are."
Weena took my hand and squeezed it.
I never could sleep while riding in an airplane. I guess it was the engines that kept me awake. So, I spent most of my time looking out the window, hoping to find some sign of civilization — so far, no luck. Everything had gone blank right after the plane took off from Perth, headed north and east. Brown-redbrown-light brown. We'd been in the air now for a couple of hours and you would have thought that there would have been some kind of house or a farm visible. Nope, none that I'd seen.
"Can I get you anything, mate?"
I looked up from under my cowboy hat and looked the young man in the eye. "No thanks. By the way, how much longer until we reach Alice Springs?"
The guy smiled, "I would say at least another hour or so."
I nodded and the young man walked further on down the aisle. Not that there was that much further to go. This was a small plane. Hell, you might get a couple dozen people in it if you tried hard enough.
"That's another thing," I said to myself, "These people sure do talk funny. I'm glad this Mr. Vincent talks better, or I'd be in a world of hurt."
I must have dozed off, because the next thing I know there was a loud bump as the aircraft wheels locked in place for landing. I wiped the sleep out of my eyes and then took a look out the window; still nothing as far as I could see.
After a few seconds, the plane banked to the right and I could see a small town slowly come into view through the small window. It didn't last long, as the plane continued to turn and by the time it straightened out for the landing, the town was gone. A few seconds later, the plane thumped the airstrip and settled down. A couple more minutes and all movement ceased and the plane engines shutdown.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Alice Springs. The local time is 11:42 AM."
I waited for the two passengers behind me to grab their bags from the overhead, and then I stood and followed them out the door. Hell, I'd had too much to carry to place it in a small bag, so I'd taken my old seabag and stuffed it with just about all I owned, which weren't saying all that much.
When I reached the door, I was expecting a jetway. No such luck. The hot, dry air was blasting in through the open door. I'm from West Texas, and I'm hear to tell yah, it was hot. Hotter than West Texas on its worst day.
"Any idear how hot it is out there?" I asked the one and only flight attendant.
Again I got the smile, "Yes, it's forty three degrees."
I guess he could tell I was confused, he spoke up, "I'm sorry mate; you Yanks are used to Fahrenheit. That would be about 109 as you blokes would measure it."
I nodded and started down the metal stairway. By the time I reached the bottom, I was already sweating and surrounded by bugs. "This," I thought, "is going to take some getting used too!"
I followed the few other passengers into the low building off to the right of where the plane was parked. Walking through the door, I could see a small car rental booth off to my right and an information stand directly ahead of me. At least there were no bugs inside.
Well, there was no doubt I needed information, so I headed off to the young lady standing behind the counter.
"Good morning. Can I help you?" She said, as I walked up to the counter.
"Maybe; I'm supposed to be met here by a fellow named Vincent. Think his first name is Stephen."
The lady looked around the room, shook her head, and then walked over to the end of the counter. She plucked a small wooden box off the counter shelf and opened it. I could see it was full of small index type cards. She rummaged through them for a few moments, and then shook her head and closed the box.
"Sorry," she said, as she walked towards me, "there are no messages for anyone, and I don't see any strangers here in the terminal."
I nodded, "There a phone around here?"
"Yes, but I can make to call for you."
I smiled, reached in my back pocket and took out my wallet. After unhooking the chain that was attached to my belt loop, I opened it up an found the piece of paper with Vincent's phone number on it.
"Here," I said, handing her the paper.
It was only then that I noticed she was staring at me with a strange look on her face.
I didn't know what to say, but she must have realized she was staring. She spoke, "I'm sorry, but I never seen anyone that chained their wallet to their pants before."
I laughed, "Then, lady, you've never been drunk as a skunk after midnight in a West Texas saloon. Then you'd know why I do it."
She shook her head, "I don't think I'll ever experience that."
From the look on her face, I figured that she probably didn't want to in the first place, either.
While I was wondering how she'd do in Lucky Joes, outside of Amarillo, up in the Panhandle, she picked up the phone and dialed the number from the paper I'd given her.
"Hello, this is guest services at the airport. Is Mr. Vincent available? ... My name is Martina Malone, but I'm calling for a visitor."
Martina got a strange look on her face and then turned to me and asked, "What is your name? Evidently the number you gave me is being answered by a policeman and he wants to know."
Well hell, I ain't been here in Australia for more than six hours and already the police want to talk to me. I shook my head, and then answered, "Name's Grant. Charlie Grant."
She repeated the name to the person on the phone, nodded her head and then told me, "The police want you to wait here. They are sending someone over to pick you up."
"Give me the phone; I'd better talk to these guys myself."
She handed me the phone, and I asked, "Why in hell the police want to talk to me?"
Again it was the funny accent, "Because Mr. Vincent was found dead early his morning."
"Dead ... well there aint no way I can help you much. I were in an airplane."
"We would still like to talk to you, Mr. Grant."
Well, I sure didn't have much else to do. "Okeh, I'll wait on yah here, then."